Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Rookie Stripe: Why Jeff Gordon’s Retirement is a Big Deal

Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs  
When Jeff Gordon first became a NASCAR driver, he made headlines as a trendsetter. As he retires at the end of the 2015 season, his story now becomes a legacy.
Gordon was just 22 when he won his first top-tier NASCAR race, edging out Rusty Wallace to capture the Coca-Cola 600 win at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The year was 1994, not long after he’d made the tricky -- and at the time unusual -- transition from open-wheel racing to stock cars in November 1992. During Gordon’s 23-year career to follow, he would win four Cup championships (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001) and 93 races and go on to become one of the most well-known athletes of all time; a star not only in NASCAR but in the world of sports. And he spent his whole NASCAR career driving the No. 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports.

Changing the standard of a sport

There are a lot of accomplished NASCAR drivers, so what makes Jeff Gordon so special? Prior to his start in stock car racing, NASCAR still had somewhat of a sub-par reputation in comparison to other popular sports in the United States. It was a peculiar enigma to much of America who didn’t totally understand the allure of driving in circles. Many drivers were older, even into their 50s, and most tracks were concentrated in the Southeastern United States. When Gordon came into the sport, things began to change.

“He definitely broke down a lot of those barriers. At that point in NASCAR, people (owners) were looking for an experienced driver to get in their car. When they were able to put in a young driver from the West Coast, or guys who were sprint-car drivers, it was against the way things had been done for a long time.” – Kevin Harvick, in an story by Michael Knight 

Gordon brought not only youth and movie-star looks to NASCAR, but a dexterity behind the wheel. He made NASCAR "cool," becoming its celebrity ambassador, drawing fans from across the nation and all walks of life as he appeared on daytime news and evening talk shows. When NASCAR ran at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 1994, 350,000 fans showed up. His magnetism helped draw racers from all kinds of backgrounds, and large companies with sponsorship money to spend became keenly aware of this sport called NASCAR.
Gordon with Jay Pennell, who is a Fox
Sports reporter today.
Credit: Jay Pennell

Gordon wrote his own storyline, but really was an author of NASCAR’s as well.

“While his predecessors took a grassroots, Southern sport and made it a household name, Gordon took NASCAR places it had never been before. He made it cool to be a NASCAR driver and a NASCAR fan. Throughout his 22-year career, Gordon, a four-time champion, became NASCAR’s greatest ambassador, and no one has ever done it better. Not in any sport.” – Jeff Owens, Sporting News

A true track star

Beyond the glitz and luster that endures in NASCAR today, Gordon at his roots is a true racer, and he loves just being behind the wheel. Here are some other facts you should know about Jeffrey Michael Gordon:

· He started out racing quarter midgets
· Began racing sprint cars at age 13 in All Star Florida Speedweeks
· Four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion
· Three-time Daytona 500 winner
· Five-time Brickyard 400 winner
· Nine road course wins, a record in NASCAR
· Has 12 restrictor plate race wins
· Has wins at every track on the NASCAR Cup circuit except Kentucky
· Seven-time winner at Darlington Raceway (1995, Spring 1996, Fall 1996, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2007)
· 797 consecutive starts
· Ranks third in all-time wins

Beyond the Flag

As of November 22, 2015 Jeff Gordon will no longer drive a Cup series car, but he'll still be a part of the circuit as he moves to the Fox Sports anchor desk as a race analyst. He’ll also to work with his sponsor Axalta in the role of advisor and spend time with his charitable foundation that supports children with cancer, including the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital.

Some folks are Jeff Gordon followers and others aren't, but most race fans respect what the man has done as an athlete and for the sport. Jeff Gordon's NASCAR driving career may be complete but his story will be told for years to come.

Credit: Logan Stewart for Skirts and Scuffs  
"I think fear is what keeps us from going over the edge. I mean, as a race car driver, I don't think what makes a good race car driver is a fearless person. I think it's somebody that is comfortable being behind the wheel of something that's somewhat out of control." -- Jeff Gordon on Larry King Live, Feb. 23, 2004

More: Cheering for Jeff Gordon one last time